Runaway train devastates small town in Quebec

Mon Jul 8, 2013 5:24pm EDT
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By Richard Valdmanis and Julie Gordon

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (Reuters) - The only warning Lac-Megantic residents had of the coming disaster was the louder-than-usual rumble of a train - a runaway locomotive laden with crude oil that would jump the tracks, explode and burn down the center of town.

"I heard a rattle, louder than usual, so I went out on the balcony and I saw the train going at extremely high speed," said Ghislain Bisson, 52, who was watching late-night television as the train approached. "Then, I saw it. It just left the track and headed right for the building.

"The explosion occurred. I woke up my girlfriend and said, 'we have to leave, we're going to die here.'"

Much is still unknown about the cause of the disaster that struck this small Quebec town, perched on the edge of a blue lake ringed by forests of pine and birch and close to the border with the U.S. state of Maine.

The company that owns the train said the brakes somehow became disengaged as it was parked at a siding on a hill. There was no driver aboard when the train barreled into Lac-Megantic shortly after 1 a.m. (0500 GMT) on Saturday.

The death toll, currently five, could rise to nearly 50 if people reported missing are not found. That would make it Canada's deadliest accident since 229 people died in 1998 when a Swissair jet crashed into the sea off eastern Canada.

"My girlfriend has cousins that we're pretty sure are dead right now, 99 percent. It just hasn't been confirmed," Bisson said. "I hope to God that not a single other train like this passes through our town."

The tragedy is particularly devastating for a town with only 6,000 residents. The blast razed dozens of buildings, including a popular bar called Musi-Cafe, where many of those reported missing are believed to have been.   Continued...

A family watches the scene of an explosion by the track that leads to derailed trains in Lac Megantic, Quebec, July 7, 2013. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi